Stoke’s gamble on Hughes

Tony Pulis and Stoke City surprised many in the last couple of weeks with news that the Welshman has left the club after two stints as manager and over nine years of combined service. Without Pulis, it’s hard to imagine Stoke would be considered the solid, dependable Premier League club that many see them as - even if they take issue with the style of football.

Stoke’s gamble on Hughes

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May 30th, 2013

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Pulis is the very definition of a manager that had set up his side to operate in a “results-driven” business. Stylish football, slick passing and exciting play were snubbed in favour of grinding out precious points in search of promotion, then safety and even a run to Wembley and the 2011 FA Cup final.

Not since their first season back in the top flight in 2008/09 has anyone doubted Stoke’s chances of retaining their Premier League status, and much of that has been thanks to the work of Pulis. He constantly drilled his players to ensure they were hard to break down, efficient in possession and deadly from set pieces. He changed the personnel in his side on a regular basis, constantly bringing in players hungry to fight and potentially better than what was previously there.

Even this season, Stoke rarely looked in danger. Despite the torrid time the club has had in 2013; winning just three league games since the turn of the year, there was rarely a period where they were roped into the relegation dogfight. They did enough to stay well clear of the bottom three for the entire season and that’s what makes Pulis’ departure so surprising.

There were no scary moments that made it look like the club were set to drop out of the Premier League, no “backings from the board” were required and no-one found themselves positioned at “panic stations.”

It’s fair to say that Stoke haven’t been at the same level this season as previous years and it’s perhaps because of that that Pulis has announced his moving on. The rugged, hard-working, battling performances have been few and far between this term and there has evidently been something lacking. Recent signings have been made for big money and the players, initially seen as upgrades, have actually forced the club to change what was a successful style.

Peter Crouch is a decent striker with an excellent touch but he is not an upgrade on Ricardo Fuller and Kenwyne Jones. Both Fuller and Jones are big, strong, pacey forwards that can run the channels for 90 minutes and be the frontline of defence for the team. Crouch doesn’t do those things and has had a potentially detrimental effect on the side as they’ve lost an important defender and an out ball in precarious situations.

Charlie Adam, possibly the best passer in Stoke’s midfield, needs a defensive base to operate around him; rather than being the man to make the tackles and win the ball himself. Michael Kightly and Brek Shea haven’t been at the level required of Premier League wide men; and with Matthew Etherington struggling and Jermaine Pennant completely out of reckoning, the side has lost much of its natural attacking width.

Pulis’ departure comes at a strong time for Stoke. There are no points to claw back as the club sits at the bottom of the league table, and the new manager has a full transfer window and pre-season to work with the players.

Such has been Pulis’ effect at the club, the Potters may well be among the favourites to go down next year and a poor start will only further the worries of those around the club. It’s a gamble for Stoke but replacing Pulis with Mark Hughes can improve the team. The safety net of Pulis is gone but for Stoke to grow as a club and play football that excites the fans once again; it’s a necessary change.

Hughes’ preferred style of football isn’t a million miles from that of Pulis. The former Blackburn, Manchester City and Fulham manager’s football is more pleasing on the eye but his sides have shown obvious grit and determination at stages as well. His deployment of Robbie Savage, Dickson Etuhu, and Gareth Barry in previous teams indicates a preference to keep things tight and have one eye on a potential clean sheet.

It’s unlikely Hughes will opt for a complete revamp in his first summer. As mentioned before, they are good footballers at Stoke. Hughes’ season at Fulham proved that he is capable of working with what is there, as well as adding his own touches. For now, the ambition has to be safety. As long as Mark Hughes secures Premier League football for Stoke in 2014/15, everything else will be considered a bonus.

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